US sanctions on two Guatemalan politicians -- one a political operator and the other an influential legislator -- are the latest salvo by Washington to show it is serious about taking on corruption in Central America.
The sanctions, announced by the US State Department on April 26, were placed on Gustavo Alejos Cámbara and Felipe Alejos Lorenzana for their alleged interference in the selection of judges to Guatemala's Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia -- CSJ) and Court of Appeals.
Alejos Cámbara -- private secretary to former president Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) and a powerful political operator -- is currently jailed on corruption charges and is accused of running the influence-peddling scheme.
He and Alejos Lorenzana -- a congressman -- are accused of bribing legislators and judges to influence judicial appointments and to secure rulings favorable to them and others, according to a statement released by the US Treasury.
Both were penalized under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US to freeze their assets and generally prohibit people in the United States from doing business with them, according to the Treasury Department.
“This action serves to shine a light on corruption and promote accountability for those who would seek to thwart the judicial process,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a statement about the sanctions.
Alejos Lorenzana did not respond to InSight Crime's calls and messages for comment. Speaking outside of congress on April 27, he told reporters that he had not been officially notified about the sanctions and only heard about them in the media.
Alejos Cámbara's lawyer told InSight Crime he would consult his client for comment, but he had not provided a statement prior to publication. Both men have previously denied any wrongdoing.
The sanctions came just hours before a virtual meeting between US Vice President Kamala Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. In the meeting, Harris highlighted "corruption and the lack of good governance" as one of the root causes of Guatemalan migrants fleeing to the US.
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With these sanctions, it appears Washington's tough anti-corruption talk is turning into action.
In June 2020, US Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, first warned that Guatemala's courts were "under attack yet again by legislators and criminal organizations." Since then, the clamor of US officials criticizing attempts to undermine Guatemala's high courts has only grown louder.
Critics include senior State Department official Julie Chung, who said in an April 15 tweet that the US had joined with other nations in expressing "deep concern" after Guatemala's congress tried to block a prominent anti-corruption judge from taking her seat on the Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad -- CC).
US Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat, has also been outspoken on the issue, saying in an April 13 tweet that Guatemala was electing judges with "conflicts of interest and alleged links to corruption while sidelining and attacking true champions for rule of law."
In February, senior State Department officials stressed the importance of having honest candidates assume positions on Guatemala's top court, whose rulings have been critical to combating impunity in the past.
By making the leap from statements to sanctions, the US appears to be sending a message to Guatemala at a moment when its anti-corruption efforts hang in the balance.
The sanctions may also portend further actions to come. The US government is still expected to publish its so-called Engel list -- a list of Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran officials suspected of corruption who will have their visas revoked.
The first measures against Alejos Cámbara and Alejos Lorenzana by the US came in June 2020, when the State Department barred both of them from entering the country.